The Eichmann Polemics: Hannah Arendt and Her Critics
Hannah Arendt, the German Jewish political philosopher who had escaped from a Nazi internment camp, had obtained international fame and recognition in 1951 with her book The Origins of Totalitarianism. Feeling compelled to witness the trial of Adolf Eichmann (‘an obligation I owe my past’), she proposed to the editor of The New Yorker that she report on the prominent Nazi’s trial in Jerusalem. The editor gladly accepted the offer, placing no restrictions on what she wrote. Arendt’s eagerly awaited ‘report’ finally appeared in The New Yorker in five successive issues from 16 February – 16 March 1963. In May 1963 the articles were compiled into a book published by Viking Press, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.
During the Second World War, Adolf Eichmann had been the head of Section IV- B-4 in the Nazi SS, overseeing the deportation of the Jews to their deaths. After the war Eichmann escaped to Argentina where he lived under an assumed name. In May 1960, the Israeli Security Service, Mossad, kidnapped Eichmann in Argentina and smuggled him to Jerusalem to stand trial for wartime activities that included ‘causing the killing of millions of Jews’ and ‘crimes against humanity.’ The trial commenced on 11 April 1961 and Eichmann was convicted and hanged on 31 May 1962.
Enormous controversy centered on what Arendt had written about the conduct of the trial, her depiction of Eichmann and her discussion of the role of the Jewish Councils. Eichmann, she claimed, was not a ‘monster’; instead, she suspected, he was a ‘clown.’ He had no ‘insane hatred of Jews’ and did not suffer from any kind of ‘fanatical anti-Semitism.’ She reported Eichmann’s claim that ‘he had never harbored any ill feelings against his victims’ and accepted it as fact. As far as Arendt was concerned, Eichmann simply had ‘an inability to think.’ She concluded: ‘The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal.’ In a postscript to later editions of the book she added that Eichmann simply ‘never realized what he was doing’ and that his criminal actions were due to ‘sheer thoughtlessness.’
Still more shocking to Arendt’s critics was her discussion of the Jewish Councils (Judenrat). These Councils were administrative bodies that the Nazis forced the Jews to establish in many occupied countries. The leaders had to follow Nazi orders under threat of immediate execution for disobedience. These orders included providing Jews for slave labour and organising the deportation of Jews to death camps.
Although Arendt’s discussion of these Councils took up no more than a few pages, it provoked outrage. ‘To a Jew,’ asserted Arendt, ‘this role of the Jewish leaders in the destruction of their own people is undoubtedly the darkest chapter of the whole dark story.’ The next two sentences proved to be the most controversial:
Wherever Jews lived, there were recognized Jewish leaders, and this leadership, almost without exception, cooperated in one way or another, for one reason or another, with the Nazis. The whole truth was that if the Jewish people had been really unorganized and leaderless, there would have been chaos and plenty of misery but the total number of victims would hardly have been between four and half and six million people.
Anson Rabinbach has argued, no doubt correctly, that the controversy surrounding Eichmann in Jerusalem ‘was certainly the most bitter public dispute among intellectuals and scholars concerning the Holocaust that has ever taken place.’ The controversy was so intense that Irving Howe, editor of the democratic socialist magazine Dissent, described it as ‘violent.’ Arendt’s friend Mary McCarthy wrote to her in September 1963 stating that the ferocity of the attacks was ‘assuming the proportions of a pogrom.’ Almost twenty years after the book appeared, Howe was able to write: ‘within the New York intellectual world Arendt’s book provoked divisions that would never be entirely healed.’ The Eichmann in Jerusalem controversy was ‘a civil war that broke out among New York intellectuals.’